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Fracturing the Zionist Narrative.

TO THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE OF ISRAELI LITERATURE, ONE first has to understand the achievements of the past twenty-five years, which have been a period of extraordinary boom. The innovations of Israeli literature during this period can be described from three different, and at time overlapping, angles: minority discourse, that is writing by or about ethnic groups that had not previously been the subject of literary representation; women's writing and the reexamination of gender codes; and magical realism, the fantastic and postmodernist narrative techniques in the writing of fiction.

The whole notion of minorities in Israeli society is one that is at odds with the official Zionist ideal of "ingathering." Rather than being seen as ethnic groups or minorities, the Jews who came to Israel from many countries around the globe were meant to be absorbed into a new society in Zion that represents a departure from life in the many and varied diasporas. In actuality, however, the culture of the Yishuv and later the state was largely based upon the norms of a single society: the socialist Zionism that had emerged in Eastern Europe, and it was often into that culture that Jews from other lands were, willingly or unwillingly, gathered in. Over time the Israeli Jews whose families had settled in Israel for ideological reasons became themselves a minority; yet the institutions of the state and its literary culture continued to bear the impress of the East European socialist stamp.

Jews from North Africa and the Middle East-together loosely called Sephardim-had long been presences in the Old and New Yishuv, but it was not until the upheavals occasioned by the War of Independence in 1948 that great numbers arrived in Israel. The immigrants from Eastern lands were extremely diverse in their backgrounds. Some came from the secularized urban professional classes of Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad; others were shopkeepers with a traditional religious outlook; and still others came from small towns and villages that had hardly been touched by industrial life. Only a small number were Zionists in the modem ideological sense of the term, and for the great majority their sudden arrival in Israel was experienced as an enormous and unanticipated upheaval. While the Zionist leadership took a romantic and ethnographic interest in the varied and distinct folkways of this exotic population, Eastern Jews were urged to integrate themselves into the dominant civic culture of the new state. After the hardsh ips and indignities of the transit camps hastily set up to absorb this mass immigration, some did succeed in assimilating into Israeli society, while others, who had been settled in outlying "development towns" that never developed, slipped into a chronic underclass.

Creating a voice and projecting it within the literary world of the newly adopted country required taking on the challenge of Hebrew. Most of the writers from Ashkenazic backgrounds had either been born into Hebrewspeaking families or had been educated in Hebrew-oriented school before coming to Palestine. Intellectuals from Eastern lands, by contrast, were at home in Arabic, and sometimes French or Berber or Turkish. Being suddenly transplanted into a Hebrew-speaking culture presented aspiring writers with the enormous challenge of learning to create in an adopted language. Some clung to Arabic and were marginalized; others went through a difficult gestation period and began to write in Hebrew. The first works produced by Sephardic writers dealt with the humiliations of transit camps and were written in the tradition of social outrage. By the period covered in this volume, Sephardic writing had evolved into a nuanced examination of the complexities of acculturation into Israeli society. The most recent ficti onal efforts have reached beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of Israel to re-evoke in highly imaginative terms the Jewish life of Baghdad and Damascus before the establishment of Israel and the "ingathering" of Eastern Jewry. The works of Sammy Michael, Shimon Balas, Eli Amir, and Amnon Shamosh moved the Eastern voice toward the center of Israeli literature.

Though not an ethnic minority, survivors of the Holocaust and other Jews who came to Israel as displaced persons also constitute an identifiable group whose voice gained literary expression only belatedly. The specter of political passivity--the contemporary perception of European Jews going to their death "like sheep to the slaughter"--clashed sharply with the heroic myth at the core of Zionism. During the first twenty years after the Holocaust, the survivor was often represented in Israeli literature as morally tainted in contrast to the brave and hard-working sabra. Until the Eichman trial in 1961 provided a showcase for Holocaust testimonies, survivors were not encouraged to tell their stories--to themselves, as well as to others. Aharon Appelfeld, who began to publish short stories in the 1960s, has been the most imaginatively powerful writer to focus on the Holocaust. Apart from Appelfeld's fiction, the single most important work to address the Holocaust is David Grossman's See Under: Love, an ambitiou s postmodernist novel that employs a variety of story-telling techniques to explore the persistence of the tragic past. Although the novel's central character is a son of survivors, Grossman himself is not, and as such he joins an increasing number of younger Israeli writers who have approached the subject of the Holocaust despite having no direct experience of it.

The minority that by nature stands most apart from the national consensus is made up of Israeli Arabs. Their language of literary expression is of course Arabic and not Hebrew, although there is the distinguished example of Anton Shamas, who has written a beautiful novel, Arabesques, in Hebrew. Given the intensity of political differences, it is unlikely that there will be a major contribution to Hebrew literature by Arab writers, although the possibility always remains open. As a subject for Jewish writers in Hebrew, the representation of Arabs has played a significant though not central role in Hebrew literature. The image of the Arab most often served as a screen upon which were projected the hopes and the fears and the moral dilemmas of the Jewish settlers in Palestine. In Yitzhak Shamir's novella Revenge of the Fathers from the 1920s, for example, the Arab is portrayed as the instinctual native son of the land; this was an ideal that the Zionist student pioneers from Eastern Europe could aspire to but n ot immediately embody. In S. Yizhar's story "The Prisoner," which was written during the 1948 war of independence, the forlorn, anonymous Arab prisoner serves as a touchstone for the Jewish narrator's struggles with his conscience. In Amos Oz's 1968 novel My Michael, Arab twins from the female narrator's childhood occupy her adult fantasy life and mirror her erotic and aggressive obsessions.

The publication of A. B. Yehoshua's first novel, The Lover, in 1977 marked a turning point in the representation of the Arab. Naim is a teenage boy from an Israeli Arab village in the Galilee who works in the garage owned by an Israeli Jew named Adam and who, in the course of the story, becomes entangled with Adam's family. The novel is composed entirely of monologues, and Naim has his monologues along with the other characters. But when he first speaks a third of the way through the novel, it has the force of a stunning debut. It is the first time in Hebrew literature that an Arab character is given his or her own voice and allowed to articulate an inner life that is not largely a projection of a Jewish fantasy or dilemma. Although Yehoshua's The Lover was indeed a breakthrough, it would be an exaggeration to say that it opened a floodgate of efforts in this direction. There are exceptions like Itamar Levy's Letters of the Sun, Letters of the Moon (1991), a novel that is told entirely through the consciousn ess of an Arab boy in a village in the occupied territories. In the end, however, the Arab remains very much an other, a flickering presence in Israeli literature.

The role played by women in modem Hebrew literature has been an equivocal one. While there have been a number of important women poets in the first half of the century (Rachel, Elisheva, Yocheved Bat-Miriam, Esther Raab, Lea Goldberg), in fiction there has essentially been the lone example of Devora Baron, whose short stories are only now receiving wide critical attention. Like other revolutionary ideologies, Zionism's proclamations concerning the equality of women were true more in theory than in practice. In the core myth of Zionism, it is the figure of the male soldier-farmer that occupied center stage. Women are assigned supporting roles; they are participants in this new historical endeavor but rarely as leaders. In the gendered language of Zionism, the partners in this new grand passion are, on the one side, the Land, as both mother and virgin bride, and on the other, the heroic Hebrew (male) pioneer, who has returned to possess the Land or to be received back into its bosom. Although flesh-and-blood w omen were essential to the settlement of the country, they were often marginalized by the prerogatives of the Great Mother, the land itself.

It is a sign of the enormous changes in culture and society that by the 1980s women writers are among the most visible and creative voices in Israeli fiction. These include Savyon Liebrecht, Ruth Almog, Michal Govrin, Dorit Peleg, Yehudit Katzir, Orly Castel-Bloom, and Ronit Matalon. What prepared the way for this belated explosion? The key precursor in women's writing is Amalia Kahana-Carmon (born in 1930), whose first collection of stories Under One Roof was published in 1966. Kahana-Carmon belongs together with Oz, Yehoshua, and Appelfeld to the New Wave in Hebrew fiction that used modernist techniques to interrogate the ideologically laden social realism of their predecessors. Yet whereas Oz and Yehoshua directly engage the Zionist narrative by writing about the kibbutz and war and peace, Kahana-Carmon, like Appelfeld in his own way, writes more subversively by sidestepping the Zionist narrative altogether. Just as Appelfeld writes about Holocaust survivors to whom the heroic posture of the Jewish state is irrelevant, so Kahana-Carmon writes about the inner lives of women as a zone removed from the passions of the national story. Influenced by the style of the Hebrew Chekhovian writer Uri Nissan Gnessin from early years of the century, Kahana-Carmon focuses on the inner space of subjectivity where language, fantasy, and desire come together. Yehudit Handel and Shulamit Hareven are women writers of Kahana-Carmon's generation--though they began to publish later than she-- whose fiction directly engages the Zionist narrative. Their work features heroines whose spirit and pluck might have carried them in feminist directions if their lives had not been overtaken by the claims of historical emergency.

Less noticed but of equal significance is the interrogation of gender that has been conducted in fiction written by men. The Zionist revolution was as much about a new construction of masculinity as about anything else. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Hebrew writers undertook an unsparing critique of the East European Jewish male, the archetypal denizen of the shtetl, as ineffectual, over-intellectualized, effeminate, passively sensual, and wife- ridden. The theorists of Zionism presented the new movement as a kind of therapy for these sickly diaspora bodies and minds. The new "muscle Jew," in this scheme, would remake the Jewish male both inside and out. How successful this therapeutic regimen was in practice is difficult to assess, but it is clear that as a masculine ideal it is very much the model for the young men who populate works by such writers as S. Yizhar who came of age during the War of Independence in 1948.

When Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua began publishing in the 1960s, their work was addressed to the issue of ideology itself and the role it played in suppressing or ignoring the exigencies of human needs. From the 1970s onwards, it is possible, I think, to detect a shift of focus from a preoccupation with ideology to an exploration of masculinity. This can be seen most clearly in Yehoshua's novels Five Seasons (1987) and Mr. Mani (1990), which concern male characters who have either taken on feminine characteristics or who seek access to the female mysteries of reproduction. The most conspicuous exploration of these issues takes place in the work of a writer who burst upon the literary scene in the 1970s and died shortly after the publication of his major work. That work is the epic novel Past Continuous (1977) by Yaakov Shabtai, which broke new ground in a number of areas. In tracing the daily movements of three men through a series of futile experiences culminating in the suicide of one of them, the novel evok es the vacuum of despair that came after the ideological passions of the generation of the founders of the state. Integral to this entropic slide toward death is a clutching for the remnants of machismo and the muscular myth of Zionist settlers. Shabtai's and Yehoshua's works have initiated among younger writers of both sexes an intense awareness and exploration of the constructed and deconstructed nature of gender in Israeli society.

The third broad category of innovation in Israeli writing between 1973 and 1993 lies in the rethinking of fiction itself. As a modem secular literature, Israeli writing has always been influenced by currents in Europe and America. The so-called Palmah Generation writers from the 1950s were deeply influenced by the canons of socialist realism. The New Wave writers of the 1960s and 1970s were influenced by the high modernism of Faulkner and Kafka. Many Israeli writers were influenced in part by the techniques of magic realism and postmodernism. Yet, whereas in the first two instances there is a considerable lag between the time of the European influences and their eventual adoption in Israel, in the more recent case the gap is much shorter. Rather than being a belated enactment of European development, the radically innovative novel See Under: Love by David Grossman, for example, is already a participant in an emerging international postmodernist style. The significant question posed by the new Israeli literat ure, as is the case with any literature that is written at a remove from the traditional centers of culture, is how these "borrowings" are naturalized within the internal traditions and concerns of Israeli culture.

Five areas of fictional experimentation are worth noticing. The first is the use of the fantastic or magic realism, which can be defined as the suspension of one or more of the laws of nature within an otherwise realistically conceived fictional world. Grossman's See Under: Love is the chief but not lone example, and it is not coincidental that these nonrealistic procedures have been mobilized to deal with the event that tampers with received categories of meaning: the Holocaust. In his novel The Blue Mountain (1988), which deals the pioneers who settled the Galilee, Meir Shalev makes limited but effective use of magic realism to convey--and simultaneously deflate--the enormous energy and willfulness of the mythic settlers.

A second feature is deliberate derivativeness expressed in the borrowing and recycling of previous literature and other cultural materials. In Grossman's See Under: Love, for example, Bruno Schulz's writings are quoted extensively, the juvenile literature of Jules Verne and Karl May is returned to repeatedly, and different historical styles are imitated wholesale. This last practice, the ventriloquizing of discourse from different historical periods, is the very principle around which Yehoshua's Mr. Man is constructed. In earlier periods of Hebrew literature, the relationship to the past centered on the use of allusion, a phrase or a metaphor embedded in the work's contemporary fictional discourse that activated associations from earlier, and usually classical, Jewish literature. In the postmodernist practice, however, the unit of reference is often much larger; rather than a point of concentrated meaning in which past and present texts momentarily engage one another, a postmodernist text may itself be made up of large swatches of earlier works or of playful imitations of them. Moreover, the materials borrowed are likely to come not from the classical tradition but from popular genres of writing and from the materials of everyday life and popular culture.

A third tendency is a movement away from ideology toward story telling. In some of the key texts of this period-Grossman's See Under: Love and the novels of Meir Shalev, for example-such momentous developments as the settlement of the Land of Israel and the Holocaust are used as the stuff of story telling and myth making rather than being taken as events of moral-historical meaning. The shift from history to story is a supremely self-conscious move that becomes thematized within the novels themselves. The subject of Grossman's Holocaust novel is the gravest of our century, yet its engagement with the event itself is minor relative to the immense preoccupation with the difficulties of writing about it and the extravagant fictions spun from its thread. For many writers, Yaakov Shabtai especially, the failure of ideology and the weakness of the spirit allows for a margin of hope or resolution only on the plane of art rather than within the mire of human affairs. But this is not the sacred art of high modernism with its priestly aspirations. The notion of art and the commitment to it among these Israeli postmodernists are at once as serious and less solemn. The playful and manipulable aspects of the artifice of their art are expressions of a commitment to experiment with the possibilities of narrative and a willingness to lay bare the mechanics and devices of their efforts. The boundary between low hijinks and serious experiment is one which is not infrequently crisscrossed by many writers.

A fourth aspect is the great interest evinced in recent Israeli writing in taking the novel apart and putting it back together differently and variously. These experiments take place at three different levels. The first is the actual discursive fabric of the novel as it presents itself to the reader reading the words on the page. At one extreme is the extraordinary--and, for most critics, extraordinarily successful--effort of Yaakov Shabtai in Past Continuous to make the novel into a single paragraph composed of a minimum of sentences. Shabtai's narrative loops back and forth in time and connects the fates of several extended families, creating a sense of continuous duration at the level of reading that is missing from the experiences of the characters. At the opposite extreme are the works of Yoel Hoffman (Bernhardt and Christos of the Fish), which neutralize the epic aspiration of the novel by chopping it up into tiny pieces. A diminutive paragraph may appear alone on a page, representing a bubble of consc iousness; and on some pages there may be nothing at all. Some of the most successful experimentation manipulates the materials that compose the novel. We may not realize how conventionalized are our expectations as readers of novels until we come across an example of the genre, as is the case with Grossmnan's See Under: Love, in which each of the novel's four sections is written in an entirely different literary style and based on a different genre model. In A. B. Yeshoshua's Mr. Mani each of the five chapters features the speech of one person in an extended dramatic dialogue with another; the questions and answers of the other person are unvoiced but inferred; furthermore, the whole of each "half dialogue" is introduced and followed by several pages of biographical and historical background supplied with a tone of factual discursive detachment.

Finally, Israeli writers have also been fascinated by what can be done with, and to, point of view. Amalia Kahana-Carmon is a writer who is identified with an earlier literary generation but whose recent writings have a distinctively postmodern temper. The narrator in her Above in Montifer (1984) is a women who has subjugated herself to a man and tells her story from the vantage point of extreme abasement and obsession. The narrator in Itamar Levy's Letters of the Sun, Letters of the Moon (1991) is a (probably) retarded Arab growing up in a village on the West Bank under Israeli occupation; his radically limited view of the world around him serves as a technique for undoing stereotypes and making strange the ostensibly familiar and threatening. Dorit Peleg's Una (1988) and Yoav Shimoni's Flight of the Dove both split the narrative point of view in two and develop each line of sight in different ways.

As in any era of intense experimentation, time will determine which works will endure. There is a potential in postmodernist practice for narcissism and trivialization, and it often depends on the will and the gifts of the individual writer as to whether a work transcends the effects of technique and creates the aura of a work of art. In the meantime, Israeli fiction continues to thrive, providing us all the while with challenging writing and an incomparably insightful glimpse into the experience of Israeli society.

Concerning the future of Israeli writing, only two things can be said with certainty. It will continue to be a provocative and engaging enterprise. And it will continue to become increasingly inclusive. The explosion of writing by and about women, Sephardim, and Holocaust survivors and the their children has been one of the major developments in Israeli literature over the past twenty-five years. The literature of the next decades is likely to include voices from groups that are now becoming part of the society and its culture. Among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union there will surely be those who seek out the prism of art to reflect on the extraordinary transplantation of a people from one milieu to a radically different one. From among the community of Ethiopian Jews in Israel there will be writers who will tell of an even more stunning transformation. The circle will be widened, and the results will be illuminating.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Israeli writing will be less visible. The most dramatic cleavage within Israeli society is between secular Jews and Orthodox Jews. It is a profound conflict that goes far beyond issues of pluralism and "life style preference" to the very center of the crisis of Judaism in modern times and the rise of Zionism. As the cultural imagination of Zionism, Hebrew literature--with the complex exception of S. Y. Agnon--has been a literature of secularity that in its early career represented the world of observant Jews only to submit it to withering satire. What was true at the end of the nineteenth century is true again today at the end of the twentieth century. The ear-locked and gabardine-wearing Jew of the shtetl represented to the Hebrew writers then the impotent spiritual corruption inherent in diaspora existence. The same iconographic image is in the minds of secular Israelis today as they view ultra-Orthodox Jews, although the perception of impotence has changed to a sen se of intimidation and resentment. There is no little curiosity on the part of the secular, whose lives are openly visible, about what takes place behind the cordon of privacy among the ultra-Orthodox. This desire for a kind of literary voyeurism has been satisfied by a mini-trend of books written by formerly Orthodox authors who purport to reveal the secrets, mostly about male-female relations, of Bnai Brak and Jerusalem.

An enormous sadness born of missed chances is the emotion evoked by this conflict when viewed through American Jewish eyes. Because of the politicization of religion in Israel, secular Israeli Jews have come to equate Judaism with the current formation of militant Orthodoxy and ultranationalism. That Judaism is a religious-cultural civilization that extends backward in time over millennia through many golden ages of poetry, narrative, and philosophy as well as legal codes and commentaries--this awareness seems to lie beyond imagining in the present a historical confrontation. American Jews who observe Israel from a distance realize--and perhaps this is their meager compensation for living outside the thick texture of Israeli life-that to confuse the present array of Orthodoxy with the religious civilization of the Jewish people is a mistake with tragic consequences. The direness of the mistake lies not so much in the trodden rights of non-Orthodox religious Jews in Israel-a serious matter in its own right-as in the price paid by the secular culture. Because of disdain for the state rabbinate and for ultra-Orthodoxy, Israeli culture often views the spiritual achievements and imaginative creations of Jewish civilization over the ages as so much poisoned fruit. What is unattractive in the present moment is confused with what was glorious in its classical manifestations.

The price paid for this confusion, I would argue, is not insubstantial. The imaginative reservoir of the Jewish past is made up of myths, symbols, stories, motifs, images, tropes, commentaries and supercommentaries, and other linguistic and cultural materials. For Israeli culture to deny itself access to this body of resources because of a quarrel with its latter-day custodians means giving up a great deal. It means living off the resources of the past hundred years, and in many cases of the past fifty years, if that much. Now, there is much in this recent history of Israel to be proud of and to make meaning from; but no culture, however thickly substantial, can forgo its past, especially when it extends so far back in time, without running the risk of desultory shallowness. As evidenced by many of the works cited at this gathering, Israeli literature remains vigorous, at least in its major innovators. Yet around the margins there are signs of cultural insufficiency that may signal more serious problems if a deeper connection to the past is not made.

For American readers, especially American Jewish readers, the issue becomes one of shared relevance and shared interest. As Israeli literature becomes-to speak in gross terms-less Jewish and more Israeli, it becomes more limited to time and place. To be sure, there will always be great works of art that transcend their origins to become universal, but then again, American readers have many places they can look for universality. The attraction Israeli literature will exert because of its Israeliness will be a factor in the attentiveness of American readers who seek a deeper and more truth-telling encounter with Israel. This is of course not the "fault" of Israeli literature but a symptom of the growing divergence between the lives and fate of Israeli and American Jews. Yet that divergence is itself the result of a shared distancing from the common core of Jewish civilization. In the century that is now concluding, American Jews drifted away from the core out of indifference and an eagerness to become American s; Israelis undertook a more complex ideological negation of much of classical Jewish culture while appropriating and amplifying the national idea. It is one of the dialectical surprises of modern Jewish history that it is now American Jews who, in their own heterodox ways, are reconnecting with that core.

Whether in the future American readers will discover in Israeli literature reflections of a parallel but exotic universe or something "of the essence," it is too soon to say.

ALAN MINTZ is a Jewish literary critic, teaches at Brandeis University, and is co-editor of Prooftexts, the foremost journal of Jewish literary criticism appearing in the world today. He is the author of Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (1984) and of a study of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Hebrew literature called Banished From Their Father's Table: Loss of Faith in Hebrew Autobiography (1989).
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Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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